It all began in Chicago in 1998 when Fr. Bill Creed, SJ, was asked by his provincial to find a way to make the Spiritual Exercises available to the economically disadvantaged. Along with Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Fr. Creed developed a format for providing Ignatian retreats to men and women who are homeless and in recovery from addiction. The Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP) is now a national network with overnight retreat programs in 26 cities across the United States and Canada. With ongoing training and support from the Chicago-based national office, a cadre of dedicated volunteers in each city delivers the retreats.
Ted Penton, SJ, is one of them. A Jesuit in formation from English Canada, Ted is a regent and a program officer with ISP, now at his second year with the organization. (Regency is the third stage of Jesuit formation where men live in community with other Jesuits and work full-time.) Ted stopped by the USA Northeast Province office and shared the story of how he became involved with ISP:
“When a fellow Canadian Jesuit told me about ISP something clicked for me. I have always had a passion for working with men and women on the margins, and since entering the Society had developed a strong desire to work in spiritual direction as well. In doing training in spiritual direction I felt that a lot of these resources could benefit people who lack the means to attend typical Jesuit retreats. I had no idea that there was already an organization that brought these two interests together. That same evening I read everything I could find about ISP and sent Bill Creed, SJ, an email to see how I could get involved. I was thrilled when the opportunity arose the following year for me to do my regency at ISP.”
A group of women at a retreat at Loyola
Jesuit Center in Morristown, N.J.
ISP has created a successful retreat model that cares for the spiritual lives of those who have experienced homelessness and addiction. Blending elements of Ignatian spirituality and the 12-Step recovery program, ISP retreats help participants establish a fundamental foundation of hope, community, and healing. By offering a safe space in which to share with one another at a deep level, ISP retreatants come to see that they are not alone in their struggles, that they are loved both by God and by those on retreat with them. As Fr. Bill Creed, SJ, said, “We can provide an endless supply of material resources to the poor and marginalized, but there can be no real transition from poverty until the individual person has the inner resources to make different choices.” ISP fosters these inner resources. For many, this is the spark that leads to long-term transformation, thus altering the cycle of despair and loneliness that has kept them out of healthy relationships with themselves, others, and God, and kept them on the streets.
“Working with those on the margins is a very important part of Jesuit charism,” explains Ted.
“Reaching out to those who are neglected by so much of our society, by using a retreat format adapted to their needs, has really helped deepen my own sense of what it means to be a Jesuit. I had worked with the homeless before, but these retreats open the door to a different level of encounter. As a retreat facilitator, I am not a service-provider, but a companion, sharing with one another some of the challenges and blessings of my own journey. There is no preaching, nor a one-direction sharing. Our model is that of faith-sharing: we all sit in the circle together, and we each share honestly and authentically with the group. The facilitator’s role is to model the type of sharing we hope that the retreatants will feel comfortable to engage in themselves. Like all of our facilitators, I come out of the retreats feeling that, as different as our lives may be, there is much more that unites us in our common humanity. On one retreat, for example, I remember sharing about my own struggle with a tendency to isolate myself. The eyes of one of the retreatants, recovering from an addiction to crack, lit up and he said I could have been telling his own life story. In that moment that difference between us shrank into insignificance next to what we share.”
A group of men participating at a retreat
“By somehow living through situations of abuse, addiction, incarceration, etc. that I haven’t encountered even in my nightmares, many of our retreatants have developed a reliance on God that is truly inspiring,” says Ted. Experiencing the honesty and transparency of retreatants has called Ted to work towards this same openness to those he encounters. “For some retreatants,” Ted continued, “the relationship with God is an intense part of their everyday life; the conviction runs very deep that it is only by God’s grace that they are clean and sober and off the streets.” Sharing in both the spiritual struggles and breakthroughs of retreatants continues to be a tremendous inspiration in Ted’s own spiritual life, challenging him to commit more deeply to seeking out and following God’s will.
Renee Owens, director of the Loyola Jesuit Center in Morristown, N.J., is also a facilitator and coordinator for ISP retreats. Loyola has been coordinating and hosting ISP retreats for the last four years. The retreat house offers four overnight retreats each year, now for men and women, as well as follow-up gatherings six weeks after each retreat to allow participants to reconnect to each other. The retreats are all free of charge for the participants and can accommodate a maximum of 15 people each.
“It is a great joy for us to have the opportunity to host the retreats,” says Renee, “It is our simple way of giving hope and giving back to the community by offering a place of peace and serenity to people who are at the margins. People who participate in ISP retreats are so incredibly thankful when they leave. They are truly touched by being welcomed in an environment that is filled with such peace and love.”
There are many concrete ways to get involved with the work of ISP. Opportunities include:
To find out more about ISP, or to explore some of the possibilities mentioned above, contact Ted Penton, SJ, at firstname.lastname@example.org